Elephant Sukka (Talmud)


When Leo Strauss and other conservative Jewish philosophers talk about “law,” is this what they mean? Two years ago, Shai Secunda posted over at Talmud Blog this little film illustrating the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud about whether or not a sukka is kosher if you use an elephant as one of its three mandated walls. It’s a peculiar, utterly charming text. You can read Shai’s take on it here.

In a fit of humorlessness unusual of him, Shai questioned its usage by the filmmaker, which Shai wanted to challenge and disarm. How peculiar is this text? Maybe it’s not at all untypical, not at all unusual to the Babylonian Talmud. My only problem with the film is that neither the elephant nor the urban environmental are as wild as they could or should have been.

As for the text, this is a bit of it, which I pulled from Shai’s blog, which he took from the Soncino translation of the Babylonian Talmud:

If he used an animal as a wall of the Sukkah, R. Meir declares it invalid and R. Judah valid, for R. Meir was wont to say, Whatever contains the breath of life can be made neither a wall for a Sukkah, nor a side-post for an alley nor boards around wells,  nor a covering stone for a grave.  In the name of R. Jose the Galilean they said, Nor may a bill of divorcement be written upon it. What is the reason of R. Meir? — Abaye replied, Lest it die.   R. Zera replied, Lest it escape.  Concerning an elephant securely bound, all  agree [that the Sukkah is valid], since even though it die,  there is still ten [handbreadths height] in its carcase.

Regarding what then do they dispute? Regarding an elephant which is not bound. According to him who says, Lest it die, we do not fear;  according to him who says, We fear lest it escape, we do fear.  But according to him who says, Lest it die, let us fear also lest it escape? — Rather say, Regarding an elephant which is not bound, all agree [that the Sukkah is invalid]; regarding what do they dispute? Regarding an[ordinary] animal which is bound: According to  him who says, Lest it die, we fear [for that[ according to him who says, Lest it escape, we have no fear.  But according to him who says, Lest itescape, let us fear lest it die? — Death is not a frequent occurrence.  But is there not an open space between [the animal’s legs? [It refers to] where he filled  it in with branches of palms and bay-trees. But might it not lie down? — [It refers to] where it was tied with cords from above. And according to him who says, Lest it die, is it not tied with cords from above?  — It may occur that it is made to stand within three [handbreadths] of the covering but when it dies, it shrinks, and this might not enter his mind… (Bavli Sukkah 23a-b)

My own quick takeaway from this text is the contrast between construction material and the breath of life, in this case animal life. For R. Meir, the instability of the latter would not seem to comport with the stability one wants from the former.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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